31 January 2008

Walking on water

[lantern & grand canal]A walk through the past

On our last trip to Venice…in fact, on the day of our departure…we met a woman. She was small, and in the States probably would have been uncharitably characterized as “frail”…but her eyes were alive. We were standing at a vaporetto stop, bags in tow, awaiting the slightly depressing trip back to our car that meant noise and diesel and Italian drivers in our future. But for the moment, with no vaporetto in sight, the usual Venetian peace reigned.

Anyway, the woman started talking to us. In flawless English, of course, which seems to be some sort of birthright among Venetians. For she was, in fact, a Venetian. Not from one of the famous merchant-oligarchist families whose names litter the rolls of The Serene Republic’s history, but a Venetian all the same. As she conversed, she revealed how upset she was that she had to join us on the water taxi system. It seemed that, in the course of fleeing a robbery, some inconsiderate lout had knocked her to the ground, necessitating a trip to the hospital where she was advised to limit her walking.

“I’ve walked everywhere since I was a little girl,” she said, resigned and with the barest hint of a pout. “But I’m going to start again as soon as I can.” She was 81.

A walk through the present

And so, rather than buy multi-day passes that allow unlimited vaporetto travel (something we did on our previous trip), we determined that we were going to walk when and where we could on this visit. The problem, of course, is that any path between points A and B in Venice is, unless those points are one of about four major landmarks, impossible to navigate without an excellent map and frequent stops for repositioning. Which can make a simple-seeming stroll a rather time-consuming slog, especially when one approaches the teeming throngs of San Marco or Rialto. On the other hand, a dedicated vaporetto rider probably saves little or no time between waiting for boats, waiting on boats, and the necessary walking to and from stops (which aren’t all that easy to find without a map, either).

But what finally decides the argument in favor of walking is that street-level Venice is something that really cannot be missed. Just as visitors to New Zealand must be counseled to get in their cars (or on their hiking boot-clad feet) and do the long journeys themselves, because the country’s majestic scenery cannot be properly enjoyed without frequent stops that aren’t possible in a packed tourist coach, so too must visitors to Venice be reminded that despite the innumerable great sights and remarkable historical venues, the supreme quality of Venice is the city itself, from narrow blocks to jagged courtyards, from angled bridges to quiet canals, from hidden paintings to back-alley produce stalls. Tourists who hop the most efficient routes between a half-dozen must-see monuments, pausing only to buy a mask or some (Chinese knockoff) glass on either side of a cheap storefront slice of pizza miss everything that makes Venice so compelling. Add in the sometimes problematic dining situation, and it’s no wonder so many tourists have a skeptical view of the place. Well, their loss.

And so, today, we walk. And walk. And walk.

…continued here.

22 January 2008

A reminder

Tasting notes -- outside themed commentary that ends up here -- have migrated to oenoLog. It's like a Wine of the Day blog...though in reality, it's more like 35 wines in one day, then nothing for four days, then 12 wines, then nothing for a week, then...

21 January 2008

A horse named scratch

[moss-covered roof]20 October 2006 – Saint-Savin, France

Cirque de Gavarnie (1st attempt) – We’re surrounded by brilliant sun when we wake, but by the time we get ready and navigate the twisty, tiny, and unbelievably beautiful drive to this World Heritage Site, rain is coming down in sodden sheets. The Cirque itself is just barely visible through the torrent. We take a quick stroll around a sleepy tourist office (even the proprietress seems like she’d rather be anywhere else), then get back in the car. Maybe the weather will change as quickly as it already has.

…continued here.

Don't taste with me, Argentina

A long-ago story on Tyler Colman’s Dr. Vino blog about tasting Argentinean wines with a critic from The Wine Advocate is more a little horrifying, and has me thinking. And, it seems, ranting. So what else is new? A better question: how did I miss this when it was first posted? I don’t know the answer to the latter, but the recent publication of the notes in question brought the story to my attention….and so, better late than never, right?

There’s been some hand-wringing in the wine consumer sector over Dr. Jay Miller’s work in The Wine Advocate, mostly due to his very high scores and sometimes breathtaking aging predictions. I’m not so much interested in that argument, because a critic can do whatever he or she wants in this regard. For me, he’s overly enthusiastic and prone to wild-eyed guesses that only blind optimism can justify, but so what? I’m sure he’d argue I’m far too critical, and who’s to say who’s right? Criticism is subjective, and will always remain so.

However, I have a number of more fundamental reactions to the piece in question:

1) “The setting was actually the Argentine Consulate in midtown Manhattan.” (Dr. Vino)

I don’t think it’s necessary for a critic to go to “the source” (the wines’ place of origin) just to render a judgment. The reason to go is to learn, which helps place wines in their cruicial contexts, and since this is a somewhat groundbreaking expansion of Argentinean coverage in (arguably) the most important publication in the field of fine wine criticism1, I’d like to have seen Miller visit Argentina along the way. His boss Robert Parker came under criticism in the past for doing report after report on Australia (and, if I remember correctly, Spain) without having visited either, though I believe that has changed.2

The counter-argument, which I’m sure many would make, is that all that matters is the wine itself, and that visiting only leads to psychological entanglements to fight off at the time of tasting, distractions that allegedly get in the way of critical truth-telling. But an ethically serious critic doesn’t deal with such facile definitions of objectivity (and in any case, the PR agents that were present would have been far more interfering than winemakers, who are generally far less intrusive), and from an organoleptic standpoint one simply cannot deal with wildly different expressions of grape, terroir, and winemaking as if they were all one. They’re not. A Paso Robles syrah is and always will be different than an Hermitage, and for a critic to pretend that they’re applying the same critical standards to each is willfully misleading.

So did Miller visit Argentina? Well…

2) “This tasting was just one aspect of my Argentina review which will ultimately involve a trip to Mendoza to taste at wineries.” (Jay Miller, in the comments)

“Miller has never visited Argentina (at least on official wine tasting business) but expects to early next year.” (Victor Honoré, in response)

The article has already appeared. So someone is lying. (Or, to be charitable, circumstances may have intervened that prevented a planned trip…but in that case, it would benefit Miller to say so in the same string of comments, lest people be led to the uncharitable conclusion.)

3) Dr. Vino is surprised that the tasting wasn’t organized by variety and style; Miller conducted the tasting by producer, apparently following the lead of the agents who set up the tasting in the first place. There are merits to both sides, and in large format tastings I prefer Miller’s approach here, though for a different reason: it helps combat palate familiarity, which I view as a debilitating component of palate fatigue. However – and this is important – I don’t rate wines. If one is tasting to rate, and thus tasting “competitively,” there’s something to be said for tasting in peer groups, and for not having to artificially attempt to adjust one’s reactions to, say, a sauvignon blanc tasted after a chardonnay and another tasted after a merlot. There’s concurrence on this point in the comments, from Dr. Debs of the Good Wine Under $20 blog (“I have to say that I don’t mind tasting by producer, because I find I have less palate fatigue that way. But–and its a huge but–I don’t claim to be objective, or assign points to things. If I were, I would taste by varietal [sic], so as to be able to make sure the syrah I just gave an 95 to was actually in some way/shape/form better than the one I gave a 90 to just a few minutes ago. How do you keep your standards consistent. When I grade student essay exams, I read all the answers to one question and grade them, then the next question and grade them. Makes sense, keeps me honest, comparative, and focused.”)

In any case, we’re not done with the issue of palate fatigue. Stay tuned.

3) “At one point [Dr. Vino] lamented the quantity of wines and [Miller] replied “well when you’ve been working for Bob Parker for 25 years, you’re used to it. He did not offer in what capacity this was although he only started as a critic last fall.” (Dr. Vino)

That Miller has written for and tasted with Parker for a very long time is not a secret, though his official and public position as a critic for The Wine Advocate is a fairly new one. But it’s a secret that is not as open as I suspect it should have been, and has caused a lot of speculation over the years. Parker went to some lengths to reinforce this point after he hired Miller, but it’s a little strange how much in the realm of rumor and whisper this relationship was in the days previous to that announcement. I, for instance, constantly heard it in the context of Parker owing his entire palate to Miller (on which I should note: even if it was true at one point, and while I have no way of knowing I kind of doubt it, Parker has long been his own man, and so it’s neither true nor relevant now).3

4) “But I report on this since I had little idea about the specifics of how tastings happen at the influential Wine Advocate. I didn’t know they were organized by producers or their agents. I didn’t know they were not tasted blind and were tasted by winery, not style. And I was surprised at how we basically had no discussion about the wines themselves, essentially having our own separate, parallel tastings. Maybe that’s because he didn’t know me but it could also be that it’s uncomfortable to talk about the wines in presence of the third party PR person, even if she did repeatedly ask for Miller’s instant evaluation.” (Dr. Vino)

It’s important to not generalize here. Different critics at The Wine Advocate take different approaches. It’s also important to highlight the non-blind nature of some of that publication’s tastings, because I think many consumers are misled on this point.4

I’m surprised that Dr. Vino didn’t know how many of The Wine Advocate’s tastings were arranged by interested third parties. One famous and highly-invested Bordeaux consultant set up tastings in that region for Parker for years (and may still do so; I’m out of touch with practices there), without major public objection…though I’d note that this is not a subject that is often discussed, and probably equally unknown among the general public. And were this knowledge more widespread, I think many would object more strongly. This is inevitable blowback from making great issue of one’s objectivity and ethics vs. other critics, because there is always something that can be called into question by consumers who have an overly idealistic and unrealistic expectation of what is meant by “independence.” (See, for example, the comments to the original post: “Wow. So we’re left to assume that Parker doesn’t taste blind, either. Sounds really objective…” and “that is absolutely fascinating. and scary. [...] at least the spectator claims that it does at least the first round of its tastings blind.”)

As for discussions, I’m on Miller’s side here. One of the things I hate most when tasting wine professionally is to be asked – by fellow tasters, by uninvolved consumers, but most of all by interested parties in the production and trade realms – what I think of the wines. First, I think that discussion leads to the integration of reactions other than one’s own, and a consumer of Miller’s or Dr. Vino’s (or Iverson’s) tasting notes is not looking or paying for consensus involving any other party. Second, the opinion is evident in the final result (the publication); this isn’t physics where showing one’s work is important or valuable, except in assessing the critic…and that’s something that’s not easily done during the tasting process. Third, and perhaps most importantly, talking wastes time. It’s important to remember that, for a professional critic, this is work, not a social wine occasion. I don’t mean to suggest that Dr. Vino doesn’t know all of that, only that he shouldn’t have been surprised to find it exemplified in this particular tasting.

5) Finally, and most dismayingly, there is a rather shocking bit of head-in-the-sand denial on Miller’s part regarding the important issue of palate fatigue.

“The palate fatigue argument, frankly, is total hogwash. The principal difficulty for amateurs is maintaining concentration, mental fatigue, not physical fatigue. Someone mentioned doing no more than 12 wines; that’s 30 minutes work. You taste, you spit, you write a note, taste again, spit, add (or not to your note) and on to the next wine. When you’ve had practice doing this, it’s simply not difficult.” (Miller)

Shorter Miller: it’s what I do, therefore it must be immutable law. And if you can’t do it, you’re not at my level.

“The quantity of wines that you are able to taste is, indeed, prodigious. Did you follow the interesting series of articles on Slate.com about the science of taste? The author reports on his discussions with Dr. Charles Wysocki, an expert on olfaction at the Monell Chemical Senses Center in Philadelphia. He said it’s impossible to taste dozens of wines in rapid succession and not suffer olfactory fatigue and that anyone who claims otherwise is claiming to 'defy biology,' as he put it. Although a critic might think that his sense of smell is still acute after sampling 40 Cabernets, his impressions at that point are being formed less by the nose than by past experience, visual cues (such as the color of the wines), and perhaps also tactile sensations.” (Dr. Vino)

“Sensation and Perception” and “Psychophysics” were part of my academic studies way back when (I got my my [sic] doctorate in 1972 and took that class (or classes) in the late ’60s. While I have no idea what current research has to say regarding olfaction and gestation, I learned enough in academia to take findings in this field with a grain of salt. There can be significant differences between theory and practice. There are still, I’m sure, issues involved in presenting stimuli in a consistent way and in the need to use trained observers (and the biases that go into that). Don’t get me wrong, they’re valid fields of study, but in terms of practical application, forget about it.” (Miller, emphasis mine)

Note that he claims authority in this field, his second dalliance with a classic logical fallacy. But then there’s the rather breathtaking statement highlighted in the quote. He notes (see below) that he has not kept up with the science in this field…in fact, his knowledge in this area is almost forty years out of date. That’s forty, not four. But that doesn’t matter to Miller, who claims to know more than the scientists anyway, just because…well, why? Because he’s Chevy Chase Jay Miller, and they’re not? So, here’s a willful dismissal of science, plus a refusal to even attempt to change one’s personal triumph of belief over evidence. Miller should run for president. Or sub for Stephen Colbert.

“As a wine blogger, I am extremely interested in the research of Wysocki and other experts, much as I am interested in the science associated with wine closure and the science related to organic viticulture. It’s unfortunate that anyone tasting wine on Mr. Miller’s level is willing to ‘have no idea what current research has to say regarding olfaction and gustation.’ As an academic, it is wise to take any findings with a grain of salt; it is not wise to ignore current findings. I will be taking Mr. Miller’s conclusions about wine with more than a grain of salt in future, given his comments here.” (Dr. Debs)

“To Dr. Debs, I can just see myself pouring [sic] through the journals after 35 years (in areas that weren’t even my specialty). My time is much better spent tasting wine. Just out of curiosity, though, I’d be interested in how you think I’d be a better wine critic if I kept up on pyschophysics, olfaction, gustation, etc. As it is, I probably know more about those subjects than 99%5 of those writing about wine. I think you’re just blowing hot air. (Miller)

So, even though he just claimed authority in these subjects in order to “win” the argument, now that he’s been called on that bit of BS he’s moved on to claiming that this field wasn’t his “specialty”. And then he claims more expertise than all but 1% of wine writers (which, I assume, would be the 1% who have, at the very least, read the Slate article, which doesn’t even require being up-to-date on the science behind palate fatigue, only basic literacy). So is Dr. Miller an expert, or not? We don’t expect those whose familiarity with computers ended with vacuum tubes or punched tape to guide us on cutting-edge chip design or the multi-touch interface, do we? In any case, if he can’t be bothered to keep up with the research over a period of forty science-filled years, I think I know what the answer is: he’s no expert, though he might like to play one on the internet when it allows him to attempt bullying legitimate questioners into silence.

But sure, there are indeed better uses for his time. Why read, or learn, or visit Argentina, when he can taste wine with an instrument (his palate) that he apparently doesn’t understand, and spend the rest of his time insulting his audience.

1 I’m exempting Wine Spectator, which is dominant in the broader world of wine, but generally considered less “important” among high-end consumers.

2 A busy critic can’t go everywhere or cover everything. There’s too many wines, and there’s simply not enough time. However, to be as informed as possible about a specific subject, a critic has to visit and taste in situ. A critic owes that to him- or herself, first and foremost, even before their duty to their readers.

3 And yes, I realize this is a sleazy way to bring up the rumor while dismissing it, sort of like what political campaigns do when they want to keep their candidates’ hands clean. I really apologize for doing so, because it’s not my intention to bring the sleaze or even the innuendo, but I think contextualizing the previously-understood (or previously-misunderstood) relationship between Parker and Miller is important in understanding why Miller’s “working for Bob Parker for 25 years” comment will strike many as bothersome, or at least curious.

4 Does it matter? To some people. For me, all that matters is whether or not you trust the critic to be fair (I don’t believe a critic can be objective, at least not in the hair shirt sense that many consumers believe). Whether the wines are tasted blind or not is far less important than a sense of ethics and fairness, and that those senses are perceived by the audience.

5 As if we needed more evidence that 71.3% of statistics are made up on the spot.

12 January 2008

Iconoclast dismissed

[vineyard]Shake, bottle & roll

This morning, there was an earthquake. Not a very big one – 6.4 or so – but enough to wake Theresa with middle-of-the-night accusations of bed-shaking. For my part, it’s something rattling upstairs that shakes me to consciousness, and I spend a few fruitless minutes checking for prowlers before finally coming back to bed, blissfully (as yet) unaware of the cause of our disruption.

On any other day like today, an earthquake probably would have been the most shocking thing to happen to us; the most jarring event amongst an otherwise peaceful procession of winery visits and beautiful drives through the viticultural Nelson countryside. But that’s any other day. As an unsettling force that rattles the foundations and disrupts the perspective, an earthquake’s got nothing on Glover’s.

Birds of a feather

On our first attempt at finding Glover’s, we go roaring right past the winery. In retrospect, we never should have turned around. Not that our experience is so horrible – it’s decidedly not – but of all the times that our arrival has somehow put a winemaker or staff member out, this one seems to be the worst.

David Glover is standing in front of us, virtually bathing in his own sweat…a perspiration that continues to bead atop his forehead from a dozen pore-sized springs. His clothes are soaked through, he’s a little dirty (the ever-persistent curse of the working winemaker who’s also in the ad hoc hospitality business), and he’s holding something. A wrench, a hammer, a cudgel...I’m a little too edgy to be sure, because alongside the sweat and the bludgeoning instrument, he’s got a decidedly wild-eyed look to him. When he finally speaks, he’s just about as short as the ever-polite Kiwis can bring themselves to be.

“Yes?” Clipped and laden with impatient meaning, yet delivered through that slightly psychotic smile.

“Um…we have an…uh…appointment?” A blank stare. “Uh, um, Russell called?” I’ve reached that point where every phrase is uttered as a tentative question. Better to avoid any appearance of aggression.

…continued here.

Photo ©Glover’s Vineyard.

10 January 2008

Turning the Tablas

[vineyard & rock]Notes from a Tablas Creek wine dinner at Simon Pearce in Quechee, Vermont. Food pairings, and their appropriateness with the wines, are described below.

Tablas Creek 2005 Grenache Blanc (Paso Robles) – Stone fruit and almond oil with hints of acacia. Crisp apples dominate the midpalate, which brightens and freshens everything before a denser finish of blood orange rind. This is a really nice wine, with more life and vivacity than one might expect from a Rhônish white, and it would appear to have some medium-term aging potential as well. (1/08)

Served with: Peekytoe crab & shrimp cake with a cucumber/lychee relish and a Key lime vinaigrette. This dish is a tremendous accompaniment to the wine, with each enhancing the other.

Tablas Creek 2000 “Clos Blanc” (Paso Robles) – 45% roussanne, 19% viognier, 19% marsanne, and 17% grenache blanc. Definitely showing signs of age, with a buttered caramel, lactic character dominating the nose. The palate, too, has turned to fat without sufficient substance. However, things are not quite so dire once one really works their way into the wine, which shows intense Rainier cherry, strawberry and apricot warmed by the hot Paso Robles sun. And then, things turn strange again, with an angular, somewhat distorted finish. I wouldn’t hold this any longer, if you’ve still got any. (1/08)

Served with: Atlantic halibut and smoked salmon roulade, almond orange rice pudding, and apricot honey vin blanc. The dish is grossly, inappropriately sweet, and completely obliterates the wine…not that what could be discerned seemed to match very well. Even taken on its own merits, this course is abominable. The rice pudding would be pretty nice on its own, as a dessert, but here? Ugh.

Tablas Creek 2004 “Côtes de Tablas” Rouge (Paso Robles) – 64% grenache, 16% syrah, 13% counoise, 7% mourvèdre. This feels a little lighter than previous vintages, but that may just be the influence of the food. Dark fruit and a slim but present structure dominate, with a dusting of fennel pollen and the very slightest edge of volatile acidity hovering atop the aromatics; nothing that anyone not oversensitive (like me) will notice, though. Soft and accessible throughout, though it seems to fill out on the finish. A typically solid, reliable, good-quality effort. (1/08)

Served with: juniper-seared venison loin, white truffle cauliflower gratin, and cherry molasses sauce. The food is too powerful for the wine, though I suspect a lower-volume dish with the same flavors would make a pretty good match. The sauce isn’t as sweet as it sounds, but the real star on the plate is the cauliflower gratin, which has a crumbed coating and is a really terrific way to extend the natural qualities of this sometimes overlooked vegetable.

Tablas Creek 2004 Tannat (Paso Robles) – 92% tannat, 8% cabernet sauvignon. This is my first domestic tannat; the only other examples I’ve tasted have been from France, Uruguay, and New Zealand. And if this is any indication, there’s great potential for this grape, though I can’t imagine the marketing nightmare it might represent. Deep, dark, mysterious, and even a little murky, with enticements of black licorice and blackcurrant, there’s the expected quantity of tannin here, but none of the usual qualities of tannin one expects from this legendarily tannic grape; instead, the structure is leathery, ripe, and…well, lush. It does calcify a bit on the finish, though…tannat fans need not worry overmuch…while the wine veers into an iron-rich, blood-like phase. There’s a touch of heat throughout, but only a touch. Terrific, and obviously quite ageable. (1/08)

Served with: braised veal cheek, caramelized shallot, marrow, and potato hash with pomegranate cassis jus. A little sweeter than it should be, but the braising and caramelizing components work well with the wine’s deep blackness. The marrow is completely lost, and I think that this dish would, in general, be better without the fruity enhancements. But, of course, Simon Pearce can’t help itself when it comes to adding sweeteners to food.

Tablas Creek 2005 Vin de Paille “Sacrérouge” (Paso Robles) – A dried-grape sweet wine made from mourvèdre. And it tastes like…figs! Black Mission figs, to be precise, in an almost uncannily accurate alcoholic form. Vague suggestions of strawberry jam, plum, or even prune are quickly dismissed by the figgy assault, and the wine has the texture of the seedy pulp left over from squeezing fruit as a preliminary step towards producing jelly. It’s relatively balanced and really, really fun. Will it age? Maybe, but I defy anyone to stop drinking it, once they’ve opened a bottle. (1/08)

Served with: Guanaja chocolate chèvre cheesecake with a hazelnut/fig spread. I should note, up front, that I’m not a big fan of figs except in their raw fruit form (and even then, I can take or leave them), so for me the hazelnut/fig elements of this dish are a complete waste of time. The “cheesecake,” however, is another story…brilliant, in fact, with an unusual texture and a fascinating mix of soft and chalky, bitter and sweet, that pairs beautifully with the wine.

03 January 2008

What we ate, pre-2008

[wine cave]This New Year’s Eve was not, for me, an event fraught with wine geekery. Thus, I didn’t take notes (though I scribbled some impressions the next morning). I did plan a menu with wines to match each course, though of course some of the guests were a little more concerned with quantity than quality. Given that, I thought I’d take a slightly unusual approach to this set of tasting notes, and talk about the food and the wine together…why they were chosen, and how they ended up interacting with the food (and the diners). Some would argue that this is what all tasting notes should be. I think that argument has considerable merit, but ultimately I don’t think that specific wine/food matches are a particularly useful form of service journalism; now we’re not just letting wine critics pick our wine, we’re also letting them pick dinner. That seems, at least to me, to be the opposite of progress.

In case the menu looks bizarre, it was done to reflect all the different ethnicities at the table. Which made it more than a little schizophrenic. That said, everything was very, very tasty.

The wine – Roederer Estate Brut (Anderson Valley)

Why it was chosen – Brought by guests as an apéritif, to begin the festivities.

Did it work? Yes. The Roederer Estate is a solid, good-quality sparkling wine that doesn’t make significant demands on the palate, either through excess delicacy, force, or complexity. It’s strong enough to serve with food, especially given the strong pinot noir component that always seems to dominate the blend

The food – Wellfleet & Duxbury oysters with a standard mignonette

The wine – Ollivier “Domaine de la Pépière” 2006 Muscadet Sèvre & Maine “Sur Lie” (Loire)

Why it was chosen – oysters and Muscadet…how can you go wrong? It’s classic pairing for a reason.

Did it work? Surprisingly, no. It was OK (though not special) with the briny, sweet, thoroughly appealing Wellfleets, but it turned metallic and bitter with the more strident Duxburies. This was a very surprising result, frankly. I’m used to Muscadet shifting with an array of differently-flavored oysters, but not to it simply refusing to play at all. Yet both the wine and the oysters were perfectly lovely on their own. This was a good reminder that to every wine-pairing rule there is at least one exception.

The food – domestic “caviar” (whitefish and salmon) with buckwheat blini, plus the usual accompaniments

The wine – Quintas de Melgaço “QM” 2006 Vinho Verde Alvarinho (Monção)

Why it was chosen – salty fish eggs, the “sweetness” of the blini, and the acidic bite of the onion...the wine pretty much has to be something that normally plays well with fresh seafood of a saltier ilk, and the QM has a core of fruit that can seem almost sweet against the right backdrop of food. There’s plenty of acid for the onions. Plus, there’s an engaging pérlance to the QM that I thought would be fun with the “pop” of the eggs.

Did it work? It was OK…an indifferent match. One of those times when it’s better to alternate the wine and food rather than attempt to pair them. Nothing was damaged, but nothing was enhanced, either. That said, the wine did an admirable job of clearing and resetting the palate for each bite.

The food – beef & chimichurri empanadas

The wine – Edmunds St. John 2005 “Shell and Bone” (Paso Robles)

Why it was chosen – given that we’re still in the early stages of the meal, I wanted something white here, but for beef with chimichurri seasoning it had to be a substantial one. There were tomatoes, pimientos, and green olives in the filling, which should have argued against this pairing, but I gambled on the notion that they’d be overwhelmed by the meat, spice, and pastry combination.

Did it work? Yes, very well. The acidity of the tomatoes didn’t interfere with this lower-acid wine, the spice played well with the wine’s particular complexities, the olives were brought out by the pairing (in the empanadas themselves they were overwhelmed by other elements), and the beef (rather than the wine or the spice) became the sharpening element in the mix. That was an interesting result. The “fat” of the wine was a fine foil for the pastry dough, as well.

The food – butter-poached coho salmon, dill/sour cream cucumber salad with Murray River salt and white pepper, smoked salmon

The wine – Roussel & Barrouillet “Clos Roche Blanche” 2006 Sauvignon Blanc “No. 2” (Loire)

Why it was chosen – normally I’d want a little more weight and “fat” with wild salmon, but the cucumber salad was, I thought, the dominant flavor element here. Thus, something with a greenish tinge was called for…but not something that would turn too angular with the salmon. Acidity was a must, too, as a match for the salad and a foil for the smoked salmon.

Did it work? Yes, better than I’d hoped. There’s a kind of spread to good Touraine sauvignon that’s not achieved in Sancerre or Pouilly-Fumé (though those wines have other qualities, of course), yet this particular wine had enough subtlety to not overwhelm the more delicate aspects of the dish; something as aggressive as a Marlborough sauvignon would have been too dominant. The salad and the wine poked and prodded at, but did not penetrate, the poached salmon, seeming to bracket it with different takes on the same realm of flavors. The smoked salmon provided a sort of “seasoning”…which was, in turn, a fine counterpoint to the earthiness of the wine, turning its chalk to salt and the smoked salmon’s salt to a more basic minerality. This was fun.

The food – freshly-made fettucine with broccoli, pine nuts, tomatoes, saffron and Manchego

The wine – Forsoni “Sanguineto I e II” 2004 Rosso di Montepulciano (Tuscany)

Why it was chosen – for whatever reason, I couldn’t get sangiovese out of my head for this dish. Certainly I needed acidity (for the tomatoes), but also enough heft to rise above the Manchego and saffron. And yet, not so much ripe fruit that the broccoli turned weedy.

Did it work? Yes, essentially. I wouldn’t call this pairing indifferent, but both the wine and food stayed mostly to themselves, not really interacting much except at the fringes, where both the saffron and tomato teased some additional complexities from the wine. I think the correct white would have been slightly better here, but we’d had a lot of whites already, and I felt that the switch to red was overdue. I’d like to try a Basque white with this.


The food – spicy Portuguese squid “stew” (tomatoes and lots of heat)

The wine – Sella & Mosca 2004 Cannonau di Sardegna “Riserva” (Sardinia)

Why it was chosen – under the assumption that, given a red with the previous course, a red would also need to be poured here, I wanted something that could handle tons of acidity (from the tomatoes, onions, garlic, wine, and red pepper), was light enough for fish, and was strong enough to deal with the spice. That’s a tall order, and I’m not sure there’s any one perfect solution, but I’ve always found this Sardinian grenache to be an excellent cross-color match for fish, so I thought I’d give it a try.

Did it work? Yes, absolutely. Though some of the wine was certainly hard-pressed to stand up to the dish’s heat, its core of sweet, ripe, red fruit (strawberry and bubblegum, in the classic grenache fashion) remained unbent, while the “space” inherent to the wine allowed the fish to join the party unmolested. This was neither my favorite nor the most surprising match of the evening, but there was something about it that was just right.

The wine – Feuillatte Champagne “1er Cru” Brut (Champagne), from magnum

Why it was chosen – brought by guests for toasting at midnight.

Did it work? Not my favorite producer. Feuillatte’s bubblies tend to be overly angular while lacking incisiveness, and this was no exception. There was a little more leesiness than usual, but it was like dousing a nascent brioche with a too-tart lemon glaze. Still, we were amidst all the usual turn-of-the-year midnight stuff, and not really paying all that much attention to the wine, so it didn’t really matter that much if the wine wasn’t a great one..

The food – duck terrine (all duck; we had several non-pork eaters) with an endive/dried cherry/walnut salad

The wine – JM Burgaud 2006 Morgon “Les Charmes” (Beaujolais)

Why it was chosen – another nod to classicism in the gamay/terrine pairing, the heft of a Morgon (plus its acidic cut) for the weight of the duck, and the particular qualities of the wine for the dried cherries and walnuts (the latter of which, I felt, would need tannin in the wine to offset their own).

Did it work? Incredibly well. Probably the best match of the night. Everything worked as I felt it might, and the wine’s structural length managed to linger as long as the delicious gaminess of the terrine. This is a classic for a reason, I suppose.

The food – lamb tagine (ras el hanout, raisins, dense meat stock reduced until almost syrupy, honey)

The wine – Easton 2006 Zinfandel (Amador County)

Why it was chosen – a big red was unquestionably called for, but the sweetness in the dish needed addressing. I could have gone for an outright sweet wine, but I felt that would be overkill, and most off-dry reds are either light or slightly candied, and thus would be grossly out of place here. The only options that make real sense are, perhaps, an off-dry Banyuls or an Amarone, but both represented enough of an uptick in cost that I was eager to find an alternative. My thought was that zinfandel, via the qualities of its fruit and, at times, its high alcohol, would provide a “sweetness” of its own…one that could deal with the dish’s peculiarities.

Did it work? Fairly well. In retrospect, a lush Australian shiraz or domestic syrah might have been an even better choice. The thing about zinfandel is that despite its high alcohol, explosive fruit, and general intensity, there’s usually a nice dollop of acidity that can only be beat back by the most extreme ripening regimens. I normally like acidity with heavy dishes, but I don’t think it works as well when the dish is heavy and sweet. There was nothing bad about this pairing, but it didn’t exactly sing, and eventually the food proved too dominant for the wine.

The food – a selection of Swiss, Irish, & English cheeses

The wine – Costières & Soleil “Sélection Laurence Féraud” 2005 Séguret (Rhône)

Why it was chosen – I’m generally in agreement with those that think, on average, whites go better with more cheeses than reds. But I’ve also learned that when the wine is red, I like a little sweat and leather. Hence, a Southern Rhône. And, frankly, knowing that at this stage the alcohol has been piling up for everyone, an uncomplicated wine seemed called for.

Did it work? See above, re: the quantity of wine preceding this course. But yes, it worked OK. I’m not sure there’s a good wine match for proper Cheddar (and I’ve tried most of them), but the Séguret was decently versatile, and flavorsome on its own. I wonder if the ESJ “Shell and Bone” might not have been a better choice for this position.

The food – “Irish cream” bread pudding with white & black chocolate

The wine – Mas Amiel 2004 Muscat de Rivesaltes (Roussillon)

Why it was chosen – I actually wanted a Banyuls Blanc here, or something similarly weighty (a sweet oloroso Sherry was also a possibility), but I had no luck finding either, and I wasn’t willing to chase all over town looking for a perfect match. So I defaulted to this, figuring that fortification would help mitigate muscat’s lack of weight and harmonious (with this food) aromatics.

Did it work? No. Not heavy enough. and too…well, muscat-ish for this dish. It was tasty on its own, but didn’t work at all with the dessert.